Take Two

Moon­light’s Ma­her­shala Ali eyes eye his second Os­car

The Guardian - Weekend - - Front Page - Por­traits by Se­bas­tian Nevols

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EX­ACTLY TWO YEARS AGO, in early 2017, the ac­tor Ma­her­shala Ali and his wife were about to give birth – one after the other. “It’s some­thing we still joke about,” says the 44-year-old Amer­i­can, sit­ting in a London ho­tel, smil­ing at the mem­ory. “My wife was preg­nant with a baby. And I was preg­nant with an Os­car.”

The ac­tor knows that sounds glib. He knows that how­ever ex­cit­ing or worked­for an in­dus­try prize – Ali won his best sup­port­ing ac­tor award that year for a stand­out performance in the com­ing-of-age drama Moon­light – noth­ing com­pares to the graft of bear­ing an ac­tual child. But as­pects of the com­par­i­son stand. There’s a lot of build-up and then things go crazy all at once. Tak­ing home a new­born, like tak­ing home an Os­car, turns life on its head. And for­get about sleep. Ali’s wife, the artist Ama­tus Sami-Karim, gave birth to their daugh­ter, Bari, that Fe­bru­ary, and 100 fraz­zled hours later Ali was on stage at the Dolby The­atre in Hol­ly­wood, look­ing blinky and de­lighted, and bring­ing an au­di­ence of grandees to their feet when he croaked: “I just wanna thank my wife.”

It was a week that changed ev­ery­thing for Ali. Un­til then he’d been an aux­il­iary guy, a well-thought-of ac­tor who didn’t of­ten get his name on the posters and who was prob­a­bly best known for his reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances in Net­flix’s House Of Cards. Ali had a fun if slightly un­der­writ­ten role as the Washington fixer Remy Dan­ton, a job he quit when the show was at its peak – want­ing to take one last shot at be­com­ing a lead­ing ac­tor be­fore it was too late. Moon­light, in which he was a tac­i­turn drug dealer, a char­ac­ter who ap­peared only fleet­ingly but whose pres­ence hung over the whole movie, sug­gested Ali had the chops for lead roles. The Os­car win in 2017 pushed him over the top, and in the two years since then Ali has jug­gled par­ent­hood with work on two huge new pro­duc­tions due out this month – the third sea­son of HBO’s pres­tige pro­ce­dural True De­tec­tive and the awards-tipped biopic Green Book, about the pi­o­neer­ing African Amer­i­can pi­anist Don Shirley.

I want to talk to Ali about Green Book, a rich and af­fect­ing film which last week won best com­edy or mu­si­cal at the Golden Globes; Ali picked up the award for best sup­port­ing ac­tor. But first, I’m cu­ri­ous to know what hap­pened next in the Ali fam­ily home, when a new­born and an Os­car came home within hours of each other.

He con­sid­ers his an­swer care­fully. The ac­tor is an ob­ser­vant Mus­lim, a thought­ful guy who speaks in long, un­hur­ried sen­tences. Com­bined with today’s out­fit – a navy blue ki­mono-like gown, but­toned to the throat – it projects a po­tent sense of spir­i­tual calm. Ali says that hav­ing the baby and the Os­car “was like a jig­saw puzzle which my wife and I had to try to put to­gether. And as soon as we felt like we’d fig­ured it out, it changed. It took a lot of lis­ten­ing to each other. Re­act­ing. Ev­ery now and then we had to hit a tun­ing fork, to make sure we were in sync.”

Through­out a 10-month shoot on True De­tec­tive, Ali’s wife and daugh­ter trav­elled from the fam­ily home in Los Angeles to the set in Arkansas as of­ten as pos­si­ble. After that, he was straight on to Green Book, which was based in New Or­leans, and here the young fam­ily were able to snatch some life to­gether be­tween days on set. And after that ? Ali says he just stopped say­ing yes to jobs. His wife needed time for her own ca­reer as an artist. The cou­ple hit the tun­ing fork – and the tun­ing fork said it was bla­tantly her turn. They moved back to Los Angeles. “You get to the point where you think: ‘If I were to ac­cept the next thing I’d be throw­ing off the bal­ance of my fam­ily.’”

Ali talks a lot about bal­ance. Cen­tral to the ap­peal of playing Don Shirley in Green Book was that here was a historical fig­ure all out of whack, a man blessed with enor­mous mu­si­cal tal­ent but with no clear place in the world he in­hab­ited. Shirley rose to promi­nence in New York in the 1960s, be­com­ing such a fix­ture at Carnegie Hall that he ended up liv­ing in a grand apart­ment above the main au­di­to­rium. “The more he had, the more he at­tained,”

Ali says. “He still couldn’t get away from his iso­lated ex­is­tence, be­cause he was sort of a man be­yond his time. You think about the Michael Jack­sons of the world, the Princes, peo­ple so ex­cep­tional and ex­tra­or­di­nary they al­most have alien sta­tus.” →

Green Book, which also stars Viggo Mortensen, plays out as a road movie. Mortensen is Tony “Lip” Val­le­longa, an Italian-Amer­i­can body­guard who is hired by Shirley to pro­vide pro­tec­tion on a risky tour through the Jim Crow-era South. The film is based on real-life events, though both Shirley and Val­le­longa have since died, and con­tro­versy brewed last year when Shirley’s sur­viv­ing rel­a­tives ques­tioned Green Book’s ac­cu­racy. Was the mu­si­cian re­ally such an aloof fig­ure, es­tranged from his fam­ily, from main­stream black cul­ture, from the black pol­i­tics of the era, as Green Book in­sists? Shirley’s brother and nephew won­dered why they hadn’t fig­ured in the writ­ing or the pro­duc­tion of the film, calling it “a sym­phony of lies”, while Val­le­longa’s son has a screen­writ­ing credit. Late last year, Ali tele­phoned the Shirley fam­ily to apol­o­gise for not con­sult­ing them first.

What seems be­yond ques­tion is that the pi­anist was a man who strug­gled to fit in. Ali’s take is that “he was some­one who was not black enough for the black com­mu­nity. He was not white enough to be ac­cepted in his pro­fes­sion. And he was not ready to be em­braced by so­ci­ety be­cause of how he iden­ti­fied sex­u­ally.”

To­wards the end of the movie, the ac­tor de­liv­ers a big, weepy scene in the rain in which Shirley opens up, about what it is to be black and gay, and so dou­bly in­fe­rior in the eyes of 1960s so­ci­ety. This will be the clip of Ali that gets shown dur­ing awards sea­son, when­ever they are run­ning down the list of nom­i­nees – but, for me, it’s his smaller mo­ments in the film that linger. In one scene, Shirley is in­vited to a grand black-tie din­ner party at which the host, imag­in­ing a great treat for his guest, re­veals the evening’s menu: fried chicken. And in­stead of walk­ing out or protest­ing, Ali has Shirley hes­i­tate for a mo­ment – and then pro­duce a beam­ing smile, show­ing ex­actly the grat­i­tude that white so­ci­ety meant him to.

I ask Ali about that pained smile, which prompts a per­sonal story. “That smile... I think it has a bit to do with Shirley want­ing to be com­fort­able. If they’re not com­fort­able then he won’t be com­fort­able. So many times, in my life, just liv­ing in New York city for a good bit of time... You’re walk­ing on the street a lot, you’re on pub­lic trans­porta­tion, you’re trav­el­ling late at night. And I re­mem­ber I was al­ways re­ally con­scious of how I dressed. Like, I wouldn’t wear clothes that al­lowed peo­ple to iden­tify me with what I would think they would view as the typ­i­cal black man. I wouldn’t wear tennis shoes. It was a con­scious thing, be­cause I found that women would cross the street [to avoid me], day or night. Or turn their ring over on the sub­way – turn the di­a­mond in­ward! These were lit­tle things I would catch all the time.”

Ali con­tin­ues: “How peo­ple would re­act to a large, fairly mus­cu­lar, dark­skinned black man – I would be so con­scious of it and it would upset me. It would af­fect my en­ergy for the rest of the day. So in order to pro­tect my­self from hav­ing to man­age other peo­ple’s fear, I would do things to pre­empt that. And so many black peo­ple around the world do this. Be­cause there’s an idea that we’re some­thing to be feared, or that we pose a dan­ger.”

Shirley’s forced smile in the movie? That’s nor­mal, Ali sug­gests: that’s text­book. “That’s just part of the tac­tics of a black per­son nav­i­gat­ing a world that doesn’t know how to re­act. You de­velop this habit of ad­dress­ing a sit­u­a­tion by com­mu­ni­cat­ing how safe you are.” The ac­tor puts out his hands in a help­less ges­ture: it is what it is, “the dou­ble con­scious­ness that black peo­ple carry with them”.

Ali’s mother, Wil­li­cia, was the daugh­ter of a Chris­tian min­is­ter, and later be­came one her­self. She picked her son’s name – Ma­her­sha­lal­hash­baz in full – out of the Bi­ble. Mother and son lived in the Bay Area of Cal­i­for­nia in what Ali de­scribes as a “prayer­ful home”. His father, Phillip, was around for a few years, un­til he left the fam­ily in un­usual cir­cum­stances. An am­a­teur dancer, he was in­vited, in the late 1970s, to ap­pear on a TV tal­ent con­test called Soul Train. He won, came home with a sports car, and then one day moved across Amer­ica to try to get work in the the­atre in New York. For about 20 years, un­til his death in the mid-1990s, Phillip ap­peared in the cho­rus line in Broad­way mu­si­cals. Ali would oc­ca­sion­ally visit. They can­not have seen each other of­ten, be­cause the ac­tor once said he could count on 10 fin­gers the num­ber of times the two of them were to­gether. “But I al­ways re­ally re­spected and ad­mired what my dad was do­ing,” he tells me.

Ali grew up close to his mother un­til he was in his early 20s, at which point there was a dif­fi­cult breach over re­li­gion. “We lost a lot of years. Be­ing in a relationship with God through Chris­tian­ity had car­ried me for a pe­riod of time,” he re­mem­bers. “And then I felt like I needed to un­der­stand some­thing deeper. So I went through a process of dig­ging through dif­fer­ent re­li­gions and philoso­phies, and ways of con­nect­ing to God. And that ended up be­ing Is­lam for me.” He con­verted at the start of 2000, chang­ing his name from Gil­more to Ali. His mother was upset and many of his friends were po­litely con­fused. But on the whole, Ali re­calls, “it didn’t nec­es­sar­ily seem that deep a thing to do. And then 9/11 hap­pened.”

Mov­ing through air­ports be­came dif­fi­cult. After a few years of be­ing →

‘Women crossed the street to avoid me. In­stead of hav­ing to man­age other peo­ple’s fear, I did things to pre­empt that’

taken aside at se­cu­rity gates, Ali learned that his name was on a watch list for air travel. Mean­while, his wife, also a prac­tis­ing Mus­lim, had stopped wear­ing a head­scarf on city streets: too much grief. There was trou­ble with the cou­ple’s bank ac­count, their funds had been mys­te­ri­ously frozen, Ali was told.

Hav­ing grown up with that “dou­ble con­scious­ness” about his race, he watched his re­li­gion be­come an­other thing that con­ser­va­tives in Amer­ica flinched from. He won­dered how it would af­fect his work and tells me he de­cided to com­part­men­talise his faith, keep­ing it sep­a­rate from his bur­geon­ing act­ing ca­reer, “mak­ing sure the work was the work and my spir­i­tual space was my spir­i­tual space”. In fact the two things – the work and the faith – were on a funny sort of col­li­sion course that would take years to play out.

Ali might have been a pro­fes­sional bas­ket­baller, hav­ing once been good enough to earn a schol­ar­ship to a pri­vate col­lege in Cal­i­for­nia. He was OK, he says, “but I don’t think I had the ap­proach or men­tal­ity that would sus­tain a suc­cess­ful sport­ing ca­reer”. As a stu­dent he’d started writ­ing po­etry, some­times per­form­ing it, and, “I was sort of caught be­tween the worlds, where I think my men­tal­ity was more suited for the arts over ath­let­ics.” He en­rolled on a grad­u­ate course in drama at New York Uni­ver­sity, and af­ter­wards hung around long enough to play a boxer in an off-Broad­way show, be­fore mov­ing back to Los Angeles.

His third-tier Hol­ly­wood ca­reer be­gan on a TV drama called Cross­ing Jordan. (“I was the black guy on the show,” Ali once said. “That was kind of it.”) More for­get­table TV shows fol­lowed, and oc­ca­sion­ally he got mid­dle-size parts in mid­dle-qual­ity films, such as The Cu­ri­ous Case Of Ben­jamin But­ton and The Place Be­yond The Pines. At one point he re­leased a rap al­bum. In 2012, vaguely hop­ing for a bounce in name recog­ni­tion, he short­ened that as­ton­ish­ing name from Ma­her­sha­lal­hash­baz to Ma­her­shala. (Pro­nounced cor­rectly it’s Ma-HER-sha-la.) Be­tween episodes of House Of Cards, he played a mil­i­tary grunt in a cou­ple of Hunger Games movies. He’d hoped for more.

The ac­tor was in his agent’s of­fice when he first read the script for Moon­light, a heav­ily au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal work by the play­wright Tarell Alvin McCraney about a Mi­ami school­boy called Ch­i­ron, per­se­cuted for be­ing gay. Ali was told there might be a part for him in the film as a drug dealer, Juan, who be­comes a father fig­ure to Ch­i­ron. For 15 years Ali had been in au­di­tions that called for a mus­cu­lar black man to play a crim­i­nal, and he might have hes­i­tated – but some­thing about the char­ac­ter of

Juan felt dif­fer­ent, more nu­anced. Ali later said he had a “vis­ceral re­ac­tion” to McCraney’s script. Shot by the di­rec­tor Barry Jenk­ins in late 2015, au­di­ences had a sim­i­larly vis­ceral re­ac­tion to Moon­light when it be­gan to play at fes­ti­vals in 2016, and the mo­men­tum con­tin­ued through to Oscars night in 2017, Ali and his col­leagues scoop­ing up nom­i­na­tions at the Golden Globes, the Baf­tas and the Screen Ac­tors Guild awards.

The SAG cer­e­mony took place in Jan­uary 2017, at the end of a dif­fi­cult week­end. Pres­i­dent Trump had just un­veiled the policy that be­came known as his “Mus­lim travel ban”. Ali had a lot go­ing on in his life (the baby was due, the Os­car was due) and he could have been for­given for ig­nor­ing the pol­i­tics of the mo­ment. But it was rare for a Mus­lim ac­tor even to be nom­i­nated at these cer­e­monies, and on the way to the SAG awards he kept think­ing about Trump’s travel ban. The ac­tor didn’t fancy de­claim­ing or fist­wav­ing – not his style. At the same time he felt it worth point­ing out that here he was, up for fa­mous prizes, “and if I was a per­son they felt enough re­spect for to hon­our with an award, well, I’m not that dif­fer­ent from those peo­ple that are not al­lowed to travel into the coun­try”.

When he won, Ali wound up telling a story about his mother. Ten­der, as per­sonal as it was po­lit­i­cal, the speech has since been viewed hun­dreds of thou­sands of times on­line. “My mother is an or­dained min­is­ter,” Ali said: “I’m a Mus­lim. She didn’t do back­flips when I called her to tell her I’d con­verted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, you put things to the side [and] I’m able to see her, she’s able to see me, and we love each other.” His was one of the first Mus­lim-Amer­i­can voices the coun­try heard that week­end, cer­tainly from within the arts, and it was a pow­er­ful mo­ment. Talk­ing softly from the podium about the par­tic­u­lar pain of per­se­cu­tion that comes from within one’s own com­mu­nity, Ali’s voice cracked as he said: “I hope that we do a bet­ter job.”

Two years on, it isn’t clear we are do­ing a bet­ter job. The US is full of re­newed talk of a bor­der wall. Europe is rack­ing it­self over Brexit. The #MeToo and Black Lives Mat­ter move­ments have helped ex­pose even graver so­cial ills than were pre­vi­ously ac­knowl­edged. I ask Ali: if he were to get back up on a win­ner’s podium with this new film, would he speak to the po­lit­i­cal mo­ment again?

Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, he takes a mo­ment to con­sider this. He doesn’t say yes, he doesn’t say no. His daugh­ter, born in Oscars week, is now two years old and Ali of­fers up a les­son he’s learned from par­ent­ing her. “It’s not like you get to say to them, ‘Hey! Don’t touch that hot stove!’ And then they never touch the stove again. You’ve got to keep drilling the mes­sage, right? You’ve got to carry on the con­ver­sa­tion un­til they grow into a state of con­scious­ness where they un­der­stand.” So we’re only at the be­gin­ning, Ali thinks. “It’s a con­ver­sa­tion that’s gonna go on for a while yet.”

Green Book is re­leased in the UK on 1 Fe­bru­ary

‘I was a per­son Amer­ica felt enough re­spect for to hon­our with an award. Well, I’m not that dif­fer­ent from the peo­ple banned from trav­el­ling here’

Clock­wise from far left: in Green Book; with Alex R Hib­bert in Moon­light; with Car­men Ejogo in True De­tec­tive; with Molly Parker in House Of Cards; The Hunger Games

Left: with wife Ama­tus Sami-Karim at the Golden Globes last week. Be­low: Ali­cia Vikan­der presents Ali with his Os­car for best sup­port­ing ac­tor in Moon­light in 2017

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